“You can do this.” I reassured myself as I drew in a deep breath and knocked.
I waited for two more minutes before knocking again. And it took another minute before I heard the doorknob jiggle. I expected him to open the door wider than a small crack, but it was wide enough for me to see half of his body. His right eye was bloodshot and it looked like he’d been crying. His hair was completely disheveled and he still wore the clothes he’d had on yesterday.
“What is it?” he asked his voice deep and sore.
“I wanted to talk about your next novel—”
“It’s Sunday. The day of rest. Let me rest,” he replied as he closed the door in my face.
I stood there stunned for a moment before I turned around and walked back down the stairs. As I stood in the driveway I paused and looked back at his house. “Was he hung over?” But I hadn’t smelled any alcohol on him.
Maybe he was still feeling ill?
“I guess I’ll go back into town.” I stuck my hands into the new pair of jeans I’d bought and headed down the road. But with every few paces behind me I felt like turning back and checking on him.
He’s a big boy. He’ll be fine. Right?
“If you don’t answer I’m going to think you’re dead!” I yelled from the other side of the door. “I’ll end up calling the Sheriff and—”
“Shut up please.” I heard a voice from his side of the door.
I put my hand on it. “Are you okay?”
“I would be if you stopped yelling.”
“I’ve been out here for an hour and called nine times!”
“Esther.” He sighed. He cracked the door an even smaller distance than he had the day before. I could only see his face and it was worse. He was pale, too pale, and his eyes, they weren’t bloodshot anymore but now he had dark circles around them.
“I forgot to tell you, I don’t work on Mondays either.” He tried to give me his usual smirk but it fell flat and I was stunned that when he closed the door I didn’t realize he was lying faster.
My temple throbbed and I could feel a headache coming on. Inhaling deeply, I stood up straighter. “It’s okay, Esther,” I said to myself. “He’s sick. Give him space. He can take care of himself.”
But he barely had anything in his fridge during his birthday, other than two steaks, some ham, and some bread. What in the world was he eating now? Was he even eating? The better question was, was he sleeping? He looked like he hadn’t had a good night’s rest since…since I’d gotten here if not longer.
Taking out my phone I texted Li-Mei.
Operation the Great Malachi Novel—day two: Fail.
She texted back immediately and I responded while making my way downstairs. First, we need a new name for this operation. Second, it’s day four. The day you got there and his birthday counts. Third, seriously what is up with this guy? Is it part of his artistic process or something?
No…I don’t know. I replied. But I wasn’t giving up. If I had to nurse him back to health so that he could write then that’s what I would do.
I walked up the stairs to his house holding the grocery bags from Nevis’s Grocery and Liquor Store. I was fully prepared to drop it next to the door and knock, but as I approached I saw that his door was cracked open and creepily swaying back and forth on its hinges.
“Malachi?” I called out but got no reply.
Leaning closer I called out once more. “Malachi? You home?”
Sucking up my fear, I pushed the door slightly and peeked in. Seeing no sign of him, I finally let myself in.
It was hard to believe I’d clean the place on Saturday. Notebook paper was everywhere, along with mugs—not one or two, but at least four different mugs, just laying all over the living room. Two of them were shattered. The handle of one was sitting in a pile of its own broken body on the ground. The couch was moved oddly, the lamp that had previously resided on the coffee table was now on the ground with its lightbulb shattered as well.
“Malachi?” I called again as I placed the groceries on the couch. I turned towards the stairs but bent down to pick up a few of the papers from ground.
No, it was paint. Black paint. There were Arabic words, the calligraphy was frantic, jarring, with paint spatters all over it.
Father. The first word read, on the next paper: Forgive. Followed by: Pain. Then Anarkali which was a name. My Arabic wasn’t the best but I believe it meant red blossoming. The longest phrase was written in red. Love asked and I said yes.
I gathered the papers together before making my way up to his room. The door was cracked open as well, and there, lying on his bed in nothing but his jeans, I found him staring blankly at something in the room. I saw that he’d abandoned the mugs, opting instead to bring the whole coffee pot to his room. Even that was empty, except for the smallest brown liquid within it.
“Malachi?” I whispered as I stepped inside and tried to get him to look at me.
But he remained silent as tears fell from his eyes without his control. Now that I was further into the room I turned and followed his gaze. And there, leaning against a few other blank canvases, was an Indian woman with long dark brown hair, dressed in green and gold traditional clothes. In the corner of the painting I saw the date written in white—1599.
I lifted the papers in my hand and motioned at her.
“Anarkali?” I asked turning to him. “Is she Anarkali?”
He blinked slowly and his dazed blue eyes looked to me, like he couldn’t focus on me and was instead looking right through me.
“I killed her,” he whispered. “I killed her to spare her the pain…I shouldn’t have! I should have held on! He would have forgiven us! He was going to forgive us! I’m sure he was. We could have stopped them! We could have lived happily ever after but I killed her! I KILLED HER!”
“Malachi!” I dropped the papers and rushed to his side as he coughed and rolled himself into a ball.
“No. Please. No!” He begged rocking back and forth with his head in his hands.
“What do I do? What’s wrong?!” I yelled touching his arm but he just shook and rolled over, with his back to me. He cried out one final time before he slipped into unconsciousness. “Malachi!”
He was ice cold and shivering as though he were naked in the middle of the North Pole. Unable to pull the blankets from under him, I wrapped him up as best as I could but he still wouldn’t stop shaking so I laid next to him and held him as tightly as I could.
“You’re going to be okay,” I whispered at his back. “You’re going to be okay. It’s only in your head. You’re going to be okay.”
I didn’t realize I was crying until my vision blurred. I held on and didn’t dare let go repeating that he’d be okay over and over while praying that he would be.
“Grandpa, he’s not well!”
“No! Don’t Esther me, Grandpa! Don’t talk to me like I’m overacting! For the last five hours, I’ve watched as he whimpered in pain, confessed to a murder that happened over four hundred years ago and begged for death twice. He thinks he’s the former prince of the Mughal Empire!” This was insane! Malachi was not sane, he needed medical treatment not to be writing books!
“He thinks he is because he is.”
I froze. The pot of soup I was boiling bubbled up as I left it. My mind was trying to comprehend the madness coming out of my grandfather.
“I’m sorry, the reception is a little spotty…what did you just say?”
“Esther, Malachi isn’t insane.”
“He’s just over four hundred years old?” Was I surrounded by lunatics? “I love paranormal fiction as much as the next person but this is going too far. What is he then? A vampire? A coffee-addicted, meat-loving, fang-less, four hundred and eighteen-year-old Caucasian vampire who was once a prince in India? That’s the story you’re trying to sell me on?”
“I need you to be open-minded when I tell you this.”
“Sure!” I turned off the stove and moved the pot to another burner. “I’m open, please go on I’ll try not to turn into a bat and fly away.”
“Are you done?”
I kept silent so he could talk though a part of me wondered if there was a two-for-one deal at the mental hospital.
“Now that you’re silent I don’t know how to explain this to you.”
“Grandpa! I’m already on edge, you cannot make jokes—”
“I’m not joking. Malachi is the former prince of the Mughal Empire.” He repeated and it sounded no more believable than it did a minute ago.
“I have no words.” In fact my brain wanted to kick open my skull and make an escape because apparently rational thought was no longer needed.
“It was hard for me to believe too.” He coughed once and I heard what sounded like a beep but he spoke a little louder. “Esther, Malachi isn’t just the prince of the Mughal Empire. He was once Romeo Montague to Juliet, Obinna the Great to Adaeze, Lancelot to Guinevere, Wei Xiao to Princess Changping—”
“Grandpa.” I smiled only because I was so sure he was messing with me. “You’re trying to tell me, that Malachi Lord, the romance novelist, is the reincarnation of all of the most tragic and iconic heroes in all of history?”
“Yes.” Came the reply. But not from Grandpa.
I turned to see the very man…the tragic hero himself, leaning against the railing of the stairs. “Can I have some of that?” He nodded to the pot.
“Grandpa!” But he was gone leaving me with the man he’d just told me had lived five different times. Holding on to his side, he slumped towards me—no—towards the pot of food, and I stepped aside as I held the phone to my chest staring blankly at him as he took the spoon I’d been using to stir and filled the bowl until it was just barely overflowing. Putting the pot down, he lifted the bowl to his lips and drank deeply until there was nothing left but the rice, beef, and carrots. Then he turned to me, the circles around his eyes were still there but they weren’t as dark as they’d been before.
“Do you mind if I finish this?” He pointed to the pot.
Without saying a word I nodded that he could go ahead. And he did. He poured the rest into the bowl, grabbed a spoon and slowly sat on the floor, this time using the spoon to feed himself.
“Is it okay?”
“It’s horrible but I’m hungry,” he replied stuffing his face again.
“Hey! You didn’t have to eat it you jerk! Put it back if it’s so horrible.”
He snickered finally looking up from the bowl. “How are you going to make me when you’re too scared to move?”
“I’m not scared.”
“You circled around me slowly as if I were a monster you were trying to escape from.”
“I’m not hurt. I’m actually relieved you have the sense to be wary of men like me.” He stuck another bite into his mouth.
“I’m not sure if you’re praising or insulting me,” I replied as I slowly sat down opposite him.
“Both. Neither. I’m not sure either,” he stated as he continued eating.
I sat in silence until he finished. He took a deep breath and said, “I don’t know how to explain…Alfred is the only one who I’ve ever told and he didn’t need much proof.”
“Shame on him.” I was going to need proof and whole lot of it. “My grandfather is a science-fiction and thriller type man. Me? I’m a diehard romantic. So you can’t just tell me you were once Romeo Montague, the Romeo of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and just get an oh-that-sounds-legit pass from me.”
“I was not Romeo Montague, the Romeo of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. William took liberties with our story. So did Arthur Brooke and before them both, Masuccio Salernitano. I was Romeo Montecchi of Verona and Juliet wasn’t Juliet but Giulietta Capuleti in 1378. We did not get married but swore to. I tried to escape to Egypt but was told that Giulietta needed to see me at the church we promised ourselves at. I arrived only to be knifed. Giulietta did not kill herself but died of a heart attack when she came to church to try and warn me that it was a setup. Also, there was never a Rosaline, why William added her I will never understand.”
I had to put my hand on my head because it felt like the world was spinning. Where was I supposed to start with that? From the least important—that being the fact he’d just called one of the greatest writers of all time William as if he’d known him personally. Or should I start from the most important—that he’d just completely ruined the story for me!
“You…this… what…oh my god I don’t know who’s crazy anymore.” I threw my hands up. “No that’s a lie. I know I’m not crazy. Do you hear yourself?”
He sighed as he stood and moved towards the sink. Turning on the faucet he set his bowl down and reached for the pot too. It was only when I started to get up from the floor that he spoke again.
“I can’t make you believe me. In all honesty, I wish Alfred hadn’t told you. Do you think I want to be like this?” He paused as he squeezed the sponge tightly. “Do you know how painful it is to remember not only how you yourself died, but how the person you loved died?”
I said nothing and he continued to scrub the bowl harder. “Nine hundred and ninety-nine times, that is how many times I have felt myself die, have watched her die. And some days I can’t breathe, I can’t eat, and I fear that if I close my eyes I will fall into another memory and watch helplessly as everything falls apart! I’m tired! I am tired of living like this! I wish I were insane, I swear to you that I do because at least there would be some type of drug that could spare me this agony! Instead, I have coffee to keep me up at night! NINE HUNDRED AND NINETY-NINE TIMES I have loved her and it has only led to our death. So screw it! Screw love. Screw romance! I do not want it! I’ll die alone in the woods before I go back to that again!”
The bowl shattered as he flung it into the sink. He gripped the edge of the counter and hung his head. Slowly I moved closer and placed my hands over his.
“I believe you and it’s…sad,” I whispered.
He glanced up at me. “It’s worse than sad, it’s a nightmare. I don’t know why we are being punished like this—”
He gripped his head again.
“Another…memory?” I asked holding on to him quickly.
“I’m going to lie down,” he whispered and pulled himself away from me.
I watched as he walked, broken, tired, and every bit miserable, back to the stairs. He climbed up one at a time as if the weight of the world were trying to pull him back down. When he was gone I turned to the broken bowl in the sink.
“I told you he was romantic,” I whispered as I carefully picked up the pieces. Nine hundred and ninety-nine times he’d loved the same woman, the only woman in the world for him, his soulmate. It wasn’t sad because they died. It was sad because he didn’t seem to realize that she loved him back, all nine hundred and ninety-nine times, she’d loved him even though she knew it would kill them both and now he’d decided to reject her. That was the sad part.
Maybe they will find themselves again?
Wait, do I really truly believe this?
“Shit.” I looked down to see that I’d cut my finger on a shard of the broken bowl. Sticking my finger into my mouth, I quickly threw the broken bits into the trash and finished cleaning up.
It didn’t matter if I believed it. He believed it and he was mourning because of it.
See you tomorrow!